Symphony Blues: Low Wages, No Benefits, but Plenty of Applause

In so many ways, what is happening to our communities throughout the United States – from transnational energy companies writing the rules for hydro-fracturing in Podunk towns; to schools closing down or clamoring like ants nests with way too many kids and too few teachers; to park hours being cut or entire monkey gym sets being bulldozed; to bus service reductions and free ride zones ending; to the gutting of community policing programs while SWAT teams get the buzz-high of military grade drone warfare junk; to buildings staying empty and vacant for years while families are tossed out of subsidized housing for the next asphalt jungle; to prison GED programs for young women getting cut while zero tolerance programs expel girls for fist-fighting; to police departments Gestapo-ing communities of color, Occupy movements, and unionists; to film departments and ethnic studies programs being axed by the smirking chimps of both political carnie shows – all these individual blasphemies of the smallest degree add up to massive systems thinking melt-down.

The end result is a privatizing tsunami where every blinking, drooling, hobbling, stumbling, heaving, ticking moment of human creativity, depravity, gesticulation, micturation, socialization, defecation, ingestion is put on a ledger and amortized by the charlatans of “free” capital. We are the weather makers and plastic eaters who are a tribe of debtors.

Leftists and true socialists have tried to construct and announce those connections to a web of life unraveling, or that web of economic strangulation and web of cultural ecosystem collapse by showing how the acting local and thinking global equations are all of our duties to resist, protest, act and continue questioning the vanguard, status quo and media insanity.

We’ve failed in our teetering attraction to the implosion and imposition of our bourgeois culture.

To put it plainly — We get co-opted by the money conveyor belt – the endless flotilla of money changers defining even our radical lives as we slip-stream in the madness of money grubbing.

It’s an old story – when the music dies, or the programs get eviscerated. We are in a time when even those in our society we place in a place of high regard are looking at a future of flagging respectability within the economic model of the all-you-can-buy warehouse thinking of the capitalists who don’t give a shit if they get their millions vis-à-vis the implosion of the bricks and mortar public spaces and communities that still make us semi-sociable creature, or if they get it via the tapping out of the glowing flat-screen existence of buying, selling, learning, fornicating, and frolicking though the world wide web.

One of my towns I’ve called home base – Spokane – represents a colluding nexus of struggle, reaffirmation, and bombed-out political disuse that other towns I’ve called home – Tucson, Las Cruces, El Paso, Seattle, Vancouver, Bisbee, Tombstone, Austin – are also struggling through.

The haves and the haves not, that constant struggle to justify existence beyond the market-driven algebra of the worth of a human’s orchestration of a hundred trillion healthy, damaged, mutating, evolving, atrophying cells.

Just a months ago, not only Spokane residents have been noticing the silence in the Fox Theater downtown, or the striking musicians’ sign capturing the sign of our universal times: “Build the Fox, tear down the orchestra?!”

Imagine this: An Art Deco movie theater part of the Fox Film Corp. empire, opened in 1931 in Spokane, designed by the guy who had his creative impulses realized in the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone Park.

Films are shown at the Fox until Sept 21 2000, after Ridley Scott’s Gladiator runs its engagement. Then, some of those stalwarts of the good old boys club wanted to buy it and then demolish it for a parking garage. Save by the Spokane Symphony, a restoration campaign kicks in.

Some $31 million later, the 1,700 seat Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox (named after the father of a $3 million donor) is re-opened for the Spokane Symphony with Tony Bennett crooning with orchestra.

The untold story is one of workers who make things work, the backbone of the elite class’ gambit of investments and returns – the musicians. They are paid starvation wages. A more precise version of their story will unfold in a minute. Again, bear with me in seeing this not as punctuated and parochial one only known to a community like Spokane, but one felt in cities like Minneapolis, Detroit, New Orleans, Seattle, all over the world.

First a little music history: The stuff Beethoven and Mozart were writing was considered vulgar in their time. The average age today of a symphony-goer is 55. When push comes to shove, more and more young people are going into classical music while fewer kiesters are filling those padded audience chairs.

Is any of this sustainable in a dog-eat-dog, consumer-motivated world of superficial entertainment?

For many, seeing Spokane’s musicians striking and picketing Friday and Saturday nights outside the Fox Theater rather than performing “The Rite of Spring” was akin to witnessing teachers walking out of their fourth graders’ classrooms: Is Spokane really going to hell in a hand basket?

There is no arguing that to be a performer in, say, “Handel’s Messiah” one has to master many sets of skills way outside anything a standardized test asks one to accomplish. That person also must have patience and perseverance not easily found in our instant gratification society.

Musicians (artists in toto?) of all people supersede the adage: “You get what you pay for.” They’ve been underfed and undercompensated for millennia. However, when cities lose their ballet, opera, orchestra and theater troupes, many can imagine the crows ready to pick at the last remnants of culture.

What that odd fellow Richard Florida might call one of the points in the creative class’s great contribution to the new, up and coming urban cores – the arts! Better yet, let’s look at what a contemporary Romanian born super-musician has to say about the arts being more than just one chink of the armor of human civilization.

If you look right now at the vestiges of the Roman Empire or the Greek Civilization, the first things you encounter are objects of art. They tell you the history of the time. They set trends in the world. You don’t see the generals, the armies; you don’t see the politics, you see the art. And I think it is a shame to cut that. Any major civilization has invested in art, in music. It is a shame that a country like the US, which is still very wealthy — at least the one percent of the population that doesn’t pay the taxes — they would rather not invest heavily in the arts. That’s how the cities go to pieces, when you don’t have the institutions there, when you don’t have a heartbeat. There are many cities like this.

Pretty heady stuff, and not surprisingly, this sort of discourse centers around the life and death of the arts in cities like Detroit, Indianapolis, Bucharest and, yes, back to 390,000 pop. Spokane. This is what Detroit Symphony Orchestra violinist Marian Tanau recently said as he reflected on the strike he and his fellow musicians approved two years ago.

Sour Notes – Unfair Labor Practice

The Spokane Symphony management and the rank and file musicians hit an impasse, and that existential disagreement centers on more than the paltry wages musicians here in Spokane get, and on much more than the limitations their contract places on them as performers seeking other gigs outside the Inland Northwest.

This is a tale of two cities, a tale of two narratives that have been clashing in our democracy since the nation was established. This is a battle of definitions: What exactly is a living wage, and, what price we as a culture, society, community, and as a people are willing to pay to make sure arts and the more humanistic side of our species thrive?

Does Spokane want to go back decades when there were no professionals tickling music from their instruments; no orchestra, no pops and holiday concerts, and no concerts in our parks, like the perennial Comstock end-of-the-summer concert?

From the sight of the overflow crowd at a large local high school, Shadle HS, on Nov. 17 — at a benefit concert performed by SSO musicians to help with their strike relief fund — citizens stood in the aisles and lobby to hear Verdi, Mozart, and Beethoven’s 5th.

Adam Wallstein is an archetypal classical musician who ended up spending years practicing instruments and in school and university on the East Coast, learning the trade of music, to end up in Spokane. Some folk like Yo-Yo Ma, the celebrity cellist and virtuoso, calculate the number of skill hours necessary to be a symphony-level professional artist at 10,000 hours or more.

Wallstein agrees. He’s been leading the negotiations with the Spokane Symphony Board on the other side of the bargaining table around wages that have been frozen since 2008 and proposed cuts to the already embarrassing low salary of $17,460 a year. For him, this argument goes beyond a paycheck — this city is where he and his wife, fellow symphony musician Alaina Bercilla, put down roots. He’s been with the Spokane Symphony for 10 years and is chair of the orchestra committee.

Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail stops the musicians from striking

Some 30 other fellow musicians and symphony aficionados braved the snow November 9 to picket out in front of the Fox Theater.
Passersby honked for the musicians, supporting their position of not having their pay knocked down to $15,400 a year. Members of the New Orleans Symphony called in some local Pizza Rita goodness for all those present — including the tuba player — as they used sidewalk politics to show the public why they have reached their philosophical and economical wits end.

Another community member handed out hot cocoa from a curbside trailer. Supporters carrying signs that said, “Save Our Symphony,” were on the street encouraging drivers to honk.

The marquee blinked: “Spokane Symphony Superpops Cancelled.” This is a big thing in small town, one-horse or chariot-full.

The Spokane Symphony is more than just weekend concerts attended by long-in-the tooth men and women donned in suits and furs listening to Beethoven and Vivaldi before nightcaps and tapas are served. The musicians of this symphony represent the power of music to transform youth and adults, to give some glimmer of hope to a community like ours suffering from that class divide of the extremely poor and the extremely wealthy. Music, like poetry, possesses these magical binding elements allowing our species to transcend the divisions inherent in a capitalistic society.

“I think people often assume that what we do is all about the privileged and the elite; this is too bad, since great music really shouldn’t be a class thing at all. I’m sure many people don’t realize just how working class the musicians are. Cobbling together several small sources of income on one hand; trying to pay off debt from considerable student loans and instrument expenses on the other,” Wallstein told me.

That “cobbling together” includes private music lessons, picking up teaching gigs as adjunct instructors at Whitworth or Gonzaga universities, and maybe a few guest appearances at other orchestras, like the Seattle Symphony. Pulling shots of coffee and waiting tables also fill the gap.

“We’re not in this to get rich,” he said. “The musicians are asking for a salary that might be a foundation to be sufficient enough to begin making a livelihood.”

I’ve helped organize adjunct faculty throughout Washington State and elsewhere, and that shame – all colleges, universities, whether public, for-profit, non-profit – is that the majority of faculty in the USA, 70-plu percent as of 2012, are contingent, temporary, unprotected by anything like a long-term contract, ethical links, let alone “tenure”!

Music programs rely largely on adjunct faculty – struggling musicians. In some cases, 90 percent of music lessons, one-on-one’s, even theory classes are taught by adjunct faculty, AKA, Musicians for Hire.

Wallstein and Bercilla are not the only husband and wife couple in our city’s symphony. Count nine total performing Mozart and sharing lives outside the orchestra pit or stage.

What’s typical is a timpani player’s narrative: A 2002 graduate of a performing arts college, Boston Fine Arts, Adam Wallstein was recruited to come to Spokane to play right after completing his bachelor’s degree. For a decade now he has invested his life in the Spokane Symphony. Many musicians are coming out of masters and doctoral programs (26 and 5 respectively for Spokane Symphony Orchestra musicians) with tens of thousands of dollars of loans and the same prospects for salaries Spokane Symphony management has straddled our artists with.

Of course, while this story has reached not only national prominence but is sort of a bellwether for musicians in Canada and in Europe, there are several sides to the coin, or at least that is what we are led to believe in this world of false balance, false dichotomies, manufactured consent and concision.

Do we really believe that management – the uber rich, the upper class – has an equal position in this equation? So, we have 70 musicians, then some of the substitutes, and then all those music schools, all those teachers, all those in the audience, all those incalculable benefits of good drama, good classical orchestras, good jazz and hip-hop performance locations, good parks, good sidewalks, good public amenities, good mass transportation, good schools.

It there really just another side that is equally weighted with a few robber barons and outside forces that call themselves the benefactors of the arts? Black and white America?

Is it just another boss attempting to break the back of the union?

I spoke with Peter Moye, chair of the Spokane Symphony Society (board). He’s with an international law firm, K & L Gates, which is a multinational corporation working on legal issues tied to financing and banking worldwide. His negotiating stance is focused on the Board’s 13.3 percent proposed cut to those already frozen 2008 wages and measures to reduce guaranteed services – rehearsals and performances – from 180 to 156 per season. “The board is not going to run deficit budgets,” Moye said.

While Moye has not been in any of the contract negotiations with Wallstein, the other musicians, and representative from the American Federal of Musicians, Local 105, he counts his wife Catherine Moye as chief negotiator in these meetings. She is currently secretary of the national League of Orchestras and was past president of the Spokane Symphony Society.

The lawyer Moye said that the board has made “major concessions,” but the musicians, Tina Morrison, who has been with AFM Local 105 for 14 years and been the president of this union of 230 musicians for seven years, and others fail to see the olive branch and fair negotiation process Peter Moye was intimating during my interview.

“Moye’s philosophy strikes me as consistent with what Chicago-based lawyer Kevin Case calls the ‘commoditization of classical musicians’ where parts are replaceable/interchangeable. There are so many musicians, so many administrators feel they can unplug a handful and plug in a different handful without trouble. In larger orchestras this is sort of like replacing all but a handful of your NFL team and expecting they’ll all be dialed into one another … same as your last batch,” so says David Beem. He’s been covering orchestra news and music for several years, after years as a professional classic musician. His pieces in the Huffington Post – and the one detailing the Spokane case – have gone viral.

His October 30 article, “Spokane Symphony: Stranded,” strikes many common themes in today’s new normal for the arts: Draconian labor cuts, inhumane lockouts by boards, musicians opting for their last resort, a strike, and “a management culture with declining human values.”

For Tina Morrison, she sees more and more difficult negotiations with musicians of orchestras in Detroit, St. Paul, Minneapolis, even Seattle against these new for profit management types who are guided by the Orchestra League of America, which charges $15,000 to $20,000 in annual dues for orchestras our city’s size.

“This language of ‘Draconian measures are necessary’ and this model of unsustainable cuts is kind of a virus,” she said. “We understand the give and take. We are trying to work through this new philanthropy where more and more targeted giving controls every penny. The important thing is to have a living, breathing live music experience here in Spokane. There has to be a respectful relationship between musicians and management.”

Music Under the Stars and Other Concerts

So, the community supports these musicians, and for many lovers of Brahms, this public campaign the musicians are engaged in has exposed the poverty level wages this cadre of artists makes.

“I was working out at a 24-hour Fitness, and this guy who attends the symphony came up to me and said, ‘I am ashamed … I had no idea how little you people make,” Wallstein said.

Management has the power of lawyers, communication spinners and the vanguard of the business community to come to their aid. The problem is that people need to live, and the economy is bouncing back. No matter how topsy-turvy it might appear in various sectors, well, the economic backbone is not slipping for the Spokane orchestra – they balanced their budget last year with robust ticket sales.

Do we drive away talent from Spokane and expect doctors and lawyers and others to come in and fill the void of a professional symphony? For almost any member of any stratified community within a community here, Spokane’s economy and spiritual well being are actually enhanced by things like professional orchestras, theater, and sports.

The value of music and the arts is not only measured in how far the community’s social and cultural well being can grow, but also to the musicians who are in the community as not just performers, but as neighbors, teachers, and engaged citizens. They are more than spikey points in Richard Florida’s hypothesis of what the creative class (knowledge workers – Yuk!) gives to a community, city. ((Expect an upcoming DV article parsing and dissecting and desiccating the BS meat substitute Florida is dishing out – but for now, see here.))

“The community certainly appreciates us,” Wallstein said. “For me, performing — being a part of this amazing music — is really an endeavor that transcends space (and even time). Not to seem too new-agey, but this music provides a transformative effect, connecting me to humanity on a grand, universal scale. It seems to me that this type of artistic/spiritual service is essential for the citizens of Spokane.”

The reality is, though, that members of Women’s Leagues and Chambers of Commerce, and the elite from the legal and medical professions, they do enjoy the sounds of professional musicians. To pay fairly for such a gift takes leadership, management skills and outreach and hard work as guild and board members.

When they hobnob with the class of species known to me as Moloch horridus (politicians, cement, road, and construction barons) and then cave at their job as “creative money entrepreneurs” for the very community that serves them, well, they can call themselves whatever they want to – Rotarians, Chamber of Commercians, Trustees, Advisory Boardmen/women, Arts Guildsmen/women, Founding Fathers, The Circle-jerks – but in the end they are the ultimate failures because they scam a dime a nanosecond and rake in millions and gut communities.

They do this easily because they believe the gilded toilet seats installed in their 1,000-square-foot bathrooms keep their shit from smelling and their personal Dow Jones ticker board mounted in their surround-sound rooms make them gods.

Having people between a rock and a hard place – musicians who ended up coming to Spokane to engage in this profession, who have invested in homes, who are raising families in some cases – is just not honorable or sustainable.

“In smaller orchestras, like Spokane, it’s a bit trickier. These folks are in a tough spot. Hard to leave financially, now that they’ve been ‘enticed’ to move there. But it’s also hard to stay. Importing new folks will be hard for management since there isn’t much financial incentive, and regional musicians playing the ‘freeway philharmonic’ may find Spokane too remote and too cheap to bother with,” Beem told me.

From the Lips of a Musician

I’ve spent many years covering labor issues, writing about the arts and education, and I myself have worked to organize disenfranchised graduate students when I was one and then part-time faculty when I transitioned into that breed of educator. I know many musicians from many different tribes and avocations who find themselves in many different economic and creative situations.
Adam Wallstein represents the strong and the forward thinking, but he is not deluded to think that all of a sudden US society – Spokane particularly – will see the light and pay an equitable wage for the work he does or what I do as a fiction writer.

DV: How can anyone want to go into music with those low wages and those cost cutting programs the Symphony Society here has unleashed?

AW: Most of the musicians who come here to play do so, not with the notion that they’ll be here forever, but that this would be a good first job, and a type of ‘stepping-stone’ within a broader career. Sometimes, these plans pan out, sometimes not. What we need to protect is the ability of our musicians to maintain and sustain their livelihoods while they’re here living and working in Spokane. Ideally, it would be a situation in which they could have a real life — start a family … buy a house … save for retirement! This is asking quite a bit. What we’re clinging to at the moment is the ability to stay afloat, so that the services we provide (on and off the stage) remain available for us and to the community.

DV: Striking takes an existential leap in confidence in a time when the average person in the USA thinks striking is bad behavior, at the least, revolutionary, at the most. What does striking mean to you?

AW: Striking means simply that the terms the administration were offering (and insisting upon, seeking to impose) simply aren’t acceptable. Individually, we can’t live with them; so we collectively made the decision to refuse to work under them. It’s a truly unfortunate turn of events, and we’re eager to get back to work as soon as a livable compromise can be reached. Simply put, it was a contract which would have been voted down by any self-respecting worker.

Tidying Up America’s Rhetoric: “If you don’t work your fingers to the bone and ass kiss the Boss, what the hell are you doing in my town, my country? You want to make a living? Then make a killing – sacrificial lambs my ass! Put in your 80 hours a week and reap it or weep!

Okay, one last foray from David Beem, making some of his own cellist licks at Huffington Post (gotta read this piece at Counterpunch on HuffPo by Christopher Ketcham — but that is yet another story! — “Jaron Lanier, the reformed computer geek and neo-Luddite author of You Are Not A Gadget, offers a devastating analysis of the “free” information aggregators, such as HuffPo, that masquerade as pioneers of a new dispensation.”

Slash and burn

So, as I look to my friends in Louisville, whose families are suffering in the wake of the unconscionable decisions of the management of the Louisville Orchestra, and as I read some of the ignorant and hateful remarks in the comment section of various news pieces I’ve read over the past few years, presumably made by some Louisville residents, I have to wonder how that community’s classical musicians have become so vilified. How did it happen that they’ve been characterized as lazy, greedy, overpaid, conniving and ruthless? (“Eat their young” was one quote that comes to mind.)

I can only think it is related to the tenor of the national debate about politics in general, and unions and free market values specifically. And if that’s true, then the conclusion I make is that the remaining full-time musicians in the LO are losing their jobs because of the conviction that “one size fits all” for our nation’s talking points. Nonprofit is fundamentally different from Big Business. Always has been, always will be. And the American Federation of Musicians isn’t exactly like the auto union. The two industries are completely different.

As orchestras continue to fold across the nation, musicians too join the ranks of the unemployed, attending to our national self-loathing and self-fulfilling prophecy, “collecting handouts,” and creating more lazy, smelly, good-for-nothings to carry a sign and march on Washington. Smacking down your local orchestra taught someone a lesson, for sure. What the lesson was is anyone’s guess.

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.